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by  Gavin McLean

As immigrants began to arrive by sea and trade expanded, New Zealand’s shipping industry was monopolised by a few powerful British and New Zealand companies. They built larger, faster ships, advancing from sail to the glamour of steam liners. These queens of the southern seas were eventually overtaken by air travel and containerisation. Today the ports, once busy with local cargo–passenger vessels, are host to container ships and cruise ships from all parts of the globe.

The era of sail

A maritime empire

In the early years of European contact with New Zealand, the country was visited by ships of several nations – French explorers, Australian sealers in small boats built in Sydney, American whalers. However, Britain’s defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815 ushered in the Pax Britannica, a century in which Britain possessed the world’s most powerful navy and its largest merchant marine. The greatest number of ships were British, bringing explorers, missionaries, traders and eventually colonisers.

The British connection deepened after New Zealand became a British colony in 1840. By the time the New Zealand Company immigrant ships dropped anchor off the first settlement sites that year, their passengers had been cooped up at sea for months. It was not the holiday that promoters sometimes suggested. These ships were ‘Blackwall frigates’, heavily built and rigged, and smaller (400–800 tons) than the colonial clippers that would appear in the 1870s. And slower. The Aurora took 126 days to reach Wellington and the Bolton 154 days.

But they left their mark. Christchurch still talks about its ‘first four ships’, Dunedin of the Philip Laing and the John Wickliffe. These and other early migrant ships live on in the names of streets and buildings in many New Zealand cities.

Against the wind

Since the wind set the pace, settlers learned to put up with delays, accidents and uncertainty en route. When the colonial shipowner Johnny Jones ran the Anne Jane from Dunedin to Ōamaru in 1854, for example, a succession of storms turned the short journey of 50 nautical miles into a 14-day struggle.

The coastal connection

While the arrival of a migrant ship was always big news, the humble coasters (coastal cargo ships) had more impact on settlers’ daily lives. Every centre developed its own webs of commerce: Auckland’s craft traded to the north, around the Hauraki Gulf and to Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty. Lyttelton had a busy trade with the Banks Peninsula settlements. Dunedin’s network fed in coal from Shag Point, grain from Kakanui and Allday Bay, building stone from Ōamaru, Kakanui and Moeraki, timber from Riverton and Waikawa, and potatoes from Port Molyneux and Moeraki.

In the absence of rail and with roads in poor condition, passengers, livestock and cargo were all carried by one- and two-mast vessels such as cutters, ketches and schooners. For the first 30 years or so after colonisation these small craft dominated shipping movements at colonial ports. Local papers recorded the comings and goings, which were mostly over fairly short distances. On 1 May 1866, for example, four ships left Nelson Harbour. The steamer Lord Ashley sailed for Sydney via Hokitika, but the others were no bigger than modern launches: the 17-ton schooner Australian Maid sailed for Awaroa with 5 passengers and the 18-ton cutter Ann for Waitapu.


Small ships had small-scale owners. Before the 1870s New Zealand shipping businesses were minnows, mostly single-ship ventures, owned by one person or by a few friends who split the shares. An early exception was Auckland partnership Henderson and Macfarlane, whose Circular Saw Line ran in the coastal and Pacific Islands trades for over 50 years from the mid-1840s.

Māori coastal trade

In the early years of European settelement Māori played a significant role in shipping. At first they used waka (canoes) and whaleboats to bring timber, firewood and produce to the new towns. In 1852 traditional craft brought 1,560 tonnes of wood, and fish, flax, grain, fruit, potatoes, vegetables, livestock and poultry for sale in Auckland. Next came the so-called ‘schooner mania’, when some groups invested in schooners and flourmills. The schooner orders kept European shipbuilders busy. At Ōpotiki, for example, Māori owned or part-owned craft such as the Providence, Napi, Mary Paul, Mana of the Queen and Louisa. But the boom was brief and by 1859 it seems that no Ōpotiki Māori owned ships. Expensive to buy and costly to maintain, trading craft were risky investments.

The era of steam

Steam – the engine of progress

In the 1860s sailing craft were still common, but from the 1870s steamers predominated. By the end of that decade they were responsible for more than half of coastal vessels and as much as 80% of coastal tonnage. Steam power brought new forms of business. Even in the 1860s steam mail services were being provided by the Inter-Colonial Royal Mail, McMeekan, Blackwood & Company, and the New Zealand Steam Navigation Company.

Paddle sloop

The first steam ship to visit New Zealand was a warship, HMS Driver, which reached Auckland in January 1846 and carried soldiers to Wellington. Like most early steamers she was essentially a sailing ship with big side paddles added.

The first big coastal company was the New Zealand Steam Navigation Company, formed at Wellington in 1862. It had six steamers by 1864, but even with public subsidies, the inefficiency of the early engines and the small size of the economy meant that it struggled to survive. The New Zealand Steam Shipping Company inherited some of its fleet, but by the mid-1870s the centre of shipping power had shifted south to Otago.

The Union Steam Ship Company

The steam era created one local commercial giant, the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd. It traded for more than 120 years, and for much of that time it was the country’s largest private employer.

The Union Company began in 1875 at Dunedin, then New Zealand’s biggest and richest city. The driving force behind it, James Mills, had lived in Otago since 1849. He caught the attention of pioneer merchant Johnny Jones and before long he was running Jones’s Harbour Steam Company. After Jones died in 1869, Mills, a trustee, delayed the sale of the fleet while he and his mates built up their stake in the business.

Mills knew that the railways would kill coastal shipping, so he ordered big, modern steamers for interisland trading. The company thrived thanks to his cunning and to British capital, especially that provided by Scottish shipbuilder and investor Peter Denny. Back in Dunedin, Mills’s fellow directors, among them members of prestigious families, supplied local knowledge and contacts. In 1876 the Union Company took over its major rival, the New Zealand Steam Shipping Company. In Britain, Denny persuaded the Albion Line to leave New Zealand’s coastal trade to Mills.

The Tasman trade

Then Mills pounced on the vital trade across the Tasman Sea to Australia. In 1876 Denny built the big Wakatipu for a friendly syndicate, and in 1877 the Rotorua made the company’s first trans-Tasman voyage. In 1878 Union took over the main trans-Tasman shipping line, McMeekan, Blackwood & Company of Melbourne. Between 1879 and 1882 Dennys built eight new liners for this route, each 1,700–2,000 tons. The Te Anau made more money, but the Rotomahana stood out. She was the world’s first seagoing passenger ship built of mild steel, and the first with bilge keels for stability. At 1,727 tons this Tasman Sea steamer dwarfed anything running between Britain and New Zealand. With her bowsprit, clipper bow and raked funnel and masts, the streamlined, 15-knot ‘Greyhound of the Pacific’ was great advertising for the new company.

Saving time

The Union Company made its money by offering its customers safe, high-quality services. Its first brand-new ships had been the 720-ton Taupo and the Hawea. That made them coastal giants in 1875, bigger than some of the immigrant ships that crossed the globe.

Before the 1870s many people derided steam ships as ‘steam kettles’ and wastefully inefficient coal-eaters. The old single-cylinder reciprocating engine was very inefficient. But two-stage expansion, or compounding, with the steam passing first through a high-pressure and then a low-pressure cylinder, almost halved fuel consumption. It saved bunker space, stoker numbers and fuel costs. The Hawea and the Taupo introduced compound engines in 1875. By 1885 triple-expansion engines offered even greater fuel efficiency, enabling a ship to consume less than 60% of the coal of those built 10 years earlier.

Mills’s steamers cut travelling times. In 1859 travellers would have been lucky to get from Auckland to Dunedin in less than 15 days. By 1879, by taking a Union Company steamer from Onehunga to Lyttelton and then transferring to a train at Christchurch, they could do the trip in five-and-a-half days. By 1898, by taking a steamer from Onehunga to New Plymouth, the train to Wellington, a steamer from Wellington to Lyttelton and then the train south, they could be in Dunedin in just three days.

Sailing ships and inland vessels in the steam era

Scows and rock-hoppers

Steam made big inroads from the 1870s. On land, steam trains took business away from the very small ports close to major towns and cities (especially on the wealthy east coast of the South Island), and at sea the big new steamers of the Union Steam Ship Company dominated the cargo trades between the larger ports. Yet not all sailing ships were driven out of business. Some comparatively large barques managed to hang on in the low-value, bulk cargo trades such as coal and timber for another 20 years. Many smaller craft still made a living servicing the isolated outports, especially in the northern and eastern parts of the North Island and the bays of Marlborough and Nelson. In all these areas, sail’s survival was helped by shipbuilders coming up with a successful design – the scow, a simple flat-bottomed craft that could service isolated creeks and beaches.

Inland waterways

New Zealand’s rivers were too fast flowing and shallow to sustain commercial shipping. In early colonial times vessels ran up several rivers but the only ones to have much commerce were the Clutha, the Whanganui and the Waikato. On the Whanganui – the ‘Rhine of New Zealand’ – entrepreneur Alexander Hatrick built up an impressive fleet of stern and side paddle wheelers, shallow-draft motor vessels, and motorised waka (canoes) that carried rich settlers, Māori, back-country cockies and stock as far as Taumarunui. In the shallow upper reaches, the motor vessels hauled themselves up over shallow rapids by using specially laid cables.

All of Kincaid’s horses

Most New Zealand steamers were made of timber, but in Dunedin, where there was less timber, locally produced iron and steel were used. In 1873 the shipbuilding company Kincaid & McQueen built an iron steamer, the Fairy. But on launching day the carriage transporting the 45-ton hull stalled en route to the beach: the wheels sank into the road and a tight street corner halted progress. Despite efforts by the company’s horses and men, the ship did not make it to the water that day.

On several lakes – most notably Rotorua, Taupō, Wanaka and Wakatipu – steamers provided passenger and cargo services to farmers and small settlements. The most important and longest-lived were Lake Wakatipu’s steamers, the Antrim, Ben Lomond, Mountaineer and Earnslaw.

The last Clutha River steamer stopped running before the Second World War, and the Whanganui River fleet, in decline by then, was virtually all laid up by the late 1950s. Small tugs and barges operated a shingle service on the Waikato River until quite late in the 20th century. Since then preservationists have restored the steamer Waimarie to service on the Whanganui as a tourist venture, and others are under restoration. On Lake Wakatipu the ‘Lady of the Lake’, the 330-ton Earnslaw, which was launched back in 1912, remains a New Zealand icon.

Immigrant ships

White wings

The heavy fuel consumption of the early steam engines kept them off the long- distance routes until the 1880s. Here sail held sway, helped by the adoption of a new, more direct route out from Europe. Great circle sailing, as it was called, began in the 1850s, taking ships further south, non-stop all the way, running through rough, cold seas where drifting pack ice added to the danger.

Speed counted. Shipping companies liked to call their ships a ‘fast packet’ or a ‘clipper’, even if they were not. The clippers of the 1870s were larger and better than the ships of the 1840s. Graceful, sharply raked bows and fine hull lines produced the clipper look, and iron hulls and iron stays gave more stability and speed. With speed came size, 800–1,300 tons compared to the 400–800 tons of the 1840s.

Shipping lines

Several shipping lines now worked in the New Zealand trade permanently. Patrick Henderson and Company of Glasgow’s Albion Line won fame with its fast Aberdeen clipper Robert Henderson. In the late 1850s it was joined by Shaw Savill and Company. Gold seekers and troop movements swelled the traffic during the 1860s, encouraging both lines to build ships especially for New Zealand’s passenger trade.

In 1873 they were joined by a local line. The New Zealand Shipping Company was formed at Christchurch as the result of complaints about high freight rates. Banker J. L. Coster and merchant Charles Wesley Turner were behind it. Turner went to Britain and unexpectedly won the main government migrant contracts. Within a year the Shipping Company had sent out nearly 40 ships, bought four and ordered the first of a dozen new iron-hulled ships. The Rakaia, Waikato, Waitangi, Waimate and Otaki of 1873–75 each was between 1,053 and 1,161 tons. Shaw Savill’s Oamaru, Timaru and Peter Denny of 1874 were 1,364 tons. Typical iron clippers of their day, they sacrificed some speed for comfort. Even so, they averaged 95–100 days per voyage, faster by 20–30 days than the ships of the 1840s.

The ‘Home boats’

The meat run: refrigerated shipping

Until 1882 much of the meat from the colony’s sheep had been wasted. But William Soltau Davidson, general manager of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company, had been watching overseas experiments with the shipment of frozen meat by steamers. He decided to improvise with a sailing ship, the Albion Line’s Dunedin, fitted with a freezing plant and partly insulated. After some technical problems and delays, the Dunedin left port bound for London, carrying nearly 5,000 carcases of mutton and lamb, which she landed in perfect condition.

Refrigeration would underpin shipping services to the United Kingdom, New Zealand’s main trading partner for almost 100 years. It started with converted sailing ships such as the Dunedin and the Mataura, but the development of the more efficient compound and triple-expansion engines very quickly enabled the regular lines to switch to steam. In 1883–84 the New Zealand Shipping Company bought five high-class ships, the Tongariro, Aorangi, Ruapehu, Kaikoura and Rimutaka, almost as big as Atlantic liners but unfortunately not fitted with the latest engines. Shaw Savill and Albion (who had just merged) followed with Arawa and Tainui, 1,000 tons bigger, at 5,000 tons, and fitted with the more efficient triple-expansion engines. Bigger, faster and safer than the old sailing ships, they revolutionised travel between Britain and New Zealand. Like the Union Steam Ship Company steamers, they saved time. These steamers took 30 or 40 days each way, rather than three or four months, and could make three round trips a year instead of one.

British owners

The new ships were too expensive for colonials to finance. The Shipping Company ran into trouble in the 1880s and was taken over by British investors. Wool farmers chartered a few ships, forming their own company (Geo. H. Scales), and Poverty Bay farmers briefly ran a freighter after the First World War, but from the 1880s New Zealanders provided almost none of their long-distance shipping services. The ‘Home boats’, as the UK trade ships were called, were British, and they were tightly controlled by cartels, or conferences, which set charges and allocated tonnages to members.

The conference lines phased out the last sailing ships (now mere cargo carriers) in the early 1900s. By then they were building two types of ship. The passenger–cargo liner Rimutaka of 1900 was nearly 8,000 tons, slow but economical. At sea, height and class went together. The Rimutaka carried 40 first-class passengers on the bridge deck, 50 second-class and 80 third-class passengers on the upper deck. A further 170 emigrants were carried in temporary dormitories that could be fitted up in the holds on the outward voyage. The second type of ship were primarily cargo carriers. The Rakaia of 1895 was smaller, at 5,600 tons, but carried 26 first-class passengers above decks and could squeeze emigrants into dormitories in the ’tween decks when required. In 1901–3, the 12,200-ton heavyweights Athenic, Corinthic and Ionic entered a new Shaw Savill–White Star joint service.

The Union Company expands

Strangling the competition

After the depression that lasted into the 1890s, the New Zealand economy recovered. Trade at the regional ports surged in the early 1900s and encouraged some new operators to import modern 500-ton British or Dutch steam coasters. Much larger and more efficient than the little steamers the Union Steam Ship Company had been content to ignore, they aroused its concern. In 1905, therefore, the Union Company’s chair James Mills decided to buy into these regional carriers.

He began in 1906. That year he bought half the shares of the recently formed Canterbury Steam Shipping Company, as well as George Niccol’s new steamer Squall. Other purchases followed. In 1908 the Union Company bought into the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company of Nelson, and the Maoriland Steam Ship Company. In 1912, after a struggle, it bought a chunk of the Napier-based Richardson & Company. It did all this in strict secrecy. With the conference lines controlling the deep-sea trades and the Union Company owning or controlling all the coastal lines apart from the small Northern Steam Ship Company, there was now very little competition in New Zealand’s shipping services.

Carping at the big fish

American writer Mark Twain criticised the powerful Union Company for exploiting the lack of competition. He sailed with 200 others from Lyttelton on the Flora, licensed to carry only 125, and which he compared to a cattle scow. He slept in a berth that was ‘as dark as the soul of the Union Company, and smelt like dog kennel’. 1

The Cook Strait ferries

The good news was that the Union Company’s near-monopoly enabled it to build fancy new ships. On the coastal routes the railways took away much of its passenger business, but the coal and general cargo trades grew fast, providing work for even bigger ships. In the late 1890s the company built new passenger ships for its isolated West Coast and Nelson services, but the glamour service was the overnight ferry between Wellington and Lyttelton.

The company had started with second-hand ships, but in 1907 it commissioned the trendsetting 19-knot Maori. In 1913 it added a partner, the 4,436-ton, 20.5-knot Wahine, as big as many trans-Tasman liners. The size and performance of these ships led the company to describe the Wellington–Lyttelton run as the ‘steamer express service’. Over the course of 70 years the ships linking north and south were replaced and upgraded – there were two Maoris, two Wahines, two Rangatiras, and a Hinemoa. They became household names. Everyone travelled on them, from school parties and family groups to commercial travellers and MPs returning to their electorates.

Trans-Tasman services

From the late 1890s the Union Company also upgraded its services across the Tasman Sea to Australia, replacing the 2,000-ton ships of the early 1880s with a series of 3,500–4,500-ton ships – vessels like the Waikare, Mokoia and Moeraki. The 5,282-ton Maheno of 1905 was one of the world’s earliest passenger ships to adopt efficient smooth-running marine turbine engines.

Generally, smaller, older ships were used to service the Pacific Island trades, which lacked the population and the cargo flow to enable shipping lines to operate without subsidies. Sail and second-hand steamers persisted here, but in the early 1900s the Union Company built the Navua and the Atua, ships nearly as big as its trans-Tasman liners.

    • Quoted in Gavin McLean, The southern octopus: the rise and demise of the Union Steam Ship Company 1875–2000: an essay. Wellington: Museum of Wellington City and Sea, 2001, p. 10. › Back

From coal to oil

After the First World War New Zealand’s shipping lines rebuilt their fleets to replace those sunk during the war. The first batch of ships was characterised by plain, no-nonsense coal burners such as the Kent of 1918. At 8,697 tons and 14 knots, she was a massive floating freezer. In 1925 the first motor vessel, the Port Dunedin, entered the NZ–UK trade. Motor vessels did away with stokers and messy coaling. From now on most new ships would be motorised, and many steamers would convert from coal to oil. Oil tanks were built at most ports in the 1920s.

Passenger liners

For the passenger trade, the pinups of the motor-ship era were the New Zealand Shipping Company’s three Rangi-class liners of 1929 (the Rangitiki, Rangitata and Rangitane). At nearly 17,000 tons, they could carry 100 first-class, 86 second-class and 413 third-class passengers. They could also carry a large amount of cargo, much of it insulated. Queen of the southern seas was Shaw Savill’s Dominion Monarch of 1939. At over 27,000 tons, she was by far the largest ship trading regularly to New Zealand, and reverted to the old Cape route. The Dominion Monarch could carry more than 500 first-class passengers, but like all the other ships listed here, she was a combination passenger–cargo vessel. Locally, the Union Company commissioned the stylish and extremely fast (23-knot) Awatea in 1936 for the trans-Tasman and trans-Pacific passenger routes. ‘Australia in three and a half days’, the posters promised.

The Second World War

The Second World War brought greater changes to shipping than the earlier conflict. Security was much tighter. To simplify loading, from 1940 most overseas ships were diverted to the major ports. In 1940–41 German raiders sank a few ships in and around New Zealand waters, from the little Chatham Islands supply ship Holmwood to the Shipping Company’s big liner Rangitane off East Cape. She was the largest ship ever sunk by a surface raider, but the greatest casualties again occurred in the waters around the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, where submarines and aircraft sank over half the pre-war conference lines fleets. New Zealand’s coasters were largely spared, but many were requisitioned for the war effort in the Pacific, supplying New Zealand and Allied forces.

Post-war boom

The conference lines rebuild

The war had devastated the conference lines’ fleets. Wartime standard ships filled some gaps, but the lines had to order whole fleets of new, specially designed ships, such as the New Zealand Shipping Company and Federal’s eight huge Haparangi class of 1947–49. In 1949 the smaller Port Auckland turned many heads with its 12,000 tons of streamlined superstructure and funnel. By the early 1960s the fleets had been completely rebuilt. Ship speed increased, from an already fast 17 knots to 21 knots by the 1960s, and on some vessels deck cranes replaced conventional derricks. But these were only refinements. The big changes came with the advent of containers in the 1970s.

By then Britain’s entry into Europe was also reducing the importance of the UK run. The conference lines had been an all-British club until the 1960s, when the old lines admitted Dutch, French, German, Italian and later Russian and Yugoslav lines, giving each a small share of the trade. The air was now filled with talk of new ship types – roll-on, roll-off (RORO), side-loading pallet ships and container ships. The cargo trade was about to change.

Passenger ships

The passenger trade changed more drastically. After the war the government chartered a few old ships to bring out assisted British migrants. The most famous were the Captain Hobson and the Captain Cook. The Shipping Company built new Rangi-class liners – larger, single-funnel versions of its earlier trio - and refurbished the older survivors, but in 1955 Shaw Savill brought in the stylish and innovative Southern Cross. This was the first big liner with the funnel aft (keeping smoke clear of the decks); the near-absence of masts and derricks also showed that she was a pure passenger ship – the only cargo was mail and passenger baggage. In keeping with the more egalitarian times, her 1,160 passengers were all one class. The slightly bigger Northern Star followed, just as long-range passenger jets started to take business away. The New Zealand Shipping Company pulled out of the passenger business in 1968 and Shaw Savill did so in 1975. Almost everyone now travelled by air.

Goodbye to all that

The end of the passenger shipping service to and from Britain meant the end of an important farewelling ritual on New Zealand wharves. When a ship sailed to Britain, often carrying young New Zealanders on ‘OE’ (overseas experience), there would be crowds on the wharf, bands playing ‘Now is the hour’, and streamers thrown from the deck to friends and relatives below.

Indian summer on the coast

The short-sea trades prospered after the war. For the Tasman Sea service, the Union Steam Ship Company built 3,700–4,500-ton capacity general cargo carriers. For its coastal services, it built 2,500-ton colliers (coal ships). The coastal trade in general cargo was shared out between the Northern Steam Ship Company and the Union Company’s subsidiaries, the Anchor, Holm, Canterbury and Richardson companies. They built modern, more flexibly sized 800–1,200-ton motor coasters.

Cook Strait link

This Indian summer was short-lived. The coal trade fell away in the 1960s and the general cargo trade shrank after the government put the first Railways Department RORO rail and car ferry on the run between Wellington and Picton in 1962. The 4,000-ton Aramoana finally linked the rail and road systems of the two islands. More rail ferries followed. These new ships and some smart link-ups with freight forwarders (firms which bought space on rail wagons at bulk rates and sold it to small clients) enabled the railways to undercut shipping by offering clients a faster, cheaper and more flexible service. Bulk cargo – cement and oil – still went by sea, but by the mid-1970s the conventional coastal trade was almost dead, and with it ports such as Ōamaru (last ship 1974), Raglan (last ship 1981) and Whanganui (virtually reduced to bulk cement). In 1968 the Wellington–Lyttelton passenger ferry, the Wahine, sank in Wellington Harbour with the loss of 51 lives. Eight years later the remaining overnight ferry, the Rangatira, withdrew, clobbered by the double whammy of rail ferry and airline competition.

The container revolution

In the 1960s and 1970s loading methods on liner shipping switched to roll-on, roll-off (RORO), mainly in the trans-Tasman and coastal trade, and containers. These brought massive changes. In the old days ships lay alongside for weeks while wharfies laboriously made up sling loads of cargo, 2–5 tonnes at a time. Containers enabled shippers to fill standard-sized steel boxes any time, anywhere, often using cheap off-wharf labour. The pre-assembling of cargo brought costs down – ships only make money when under way – and ship turnaround times shortened. In 1971 the container ship Columbus New Zealand took eight days and eight hours to load and discharge 9,775 tons of cargo; a conventional ship would have taken 35 days.

Not everything went into containers. Less valuable cargo switched to bulk carriers – log ships, ore carriers, bulk cement carriers and oil tankers. In the mid- to late 1970s entire fleets of conventional ships disappeared. The Union Steam Ship Company absorbed most of the coastal carriers.

The drive for greater economy

Now that ships no longer faced weeks alongside the wharf, it became feasible to build them bigger, offering further economies of scale. In the Europe trade in the 1970s, therefore, 45,000-ton container vessels replaced 10,000-ton ships. The next generation would be even bigger. The Mairangi Bay (1978) could carry 2,400 TEU – 20-foot container equivalent units. Her 21st-century replacement, the P&O Nedlloyd Mairangi, carried 4,100. But as ships got bigger, crews got smaller. The Union Rotoiti, built in 1977 for operation on the Tasman by 42 people, was running on the same route in 2004 as the Rotoiti with just 24 crew.

In the 1980s and 1990s increased mechanisation and labour and management reforms further reduced the turnaround time. In Tauranga in the 1980s it took 44 workers 12 or 13 days to load 27,000 cubic metres of logs. By 1996 it took only four workers 30 hours, working around the clock. In the 2010s container ships often had fixed-day sailings and guaranteed berths, and even the largest might arrive and depart on the same day.


The ‘red duster’, the flag of the British merchant marine, no longer dominates New Zealand’s waterfronts. Shipping registered in the British Commonwealth (mainly United Kingdom) accounted for 55% of all arrivals in 1965. By the 2000s they were rare visitors, and even British-owned ships were likely to be registered with ‘flag of convenience’ nations such as Panama or Liberia, whose share of shipping registry soared from 6.2% in 1953 to 47.8% in 1998.

End of the old lines

Containerisation was a new word, and with it came businesslike branding for container ships such as ACT 1 and ACT 2 (named after the Associated Container Transportation company). In contrast, the names from an earlier era were often more evocative – Shamrock, Breeze, Star of Canada.

Globalisation and the collapse of traditional shipping groups caused many lines to disappear altogether. Others merged – Europe trade heavyweight P&O with Nedlloyd, Danish carrier Maersk with America’s Sealand. New Zealand’s box trades became dominated by Maersk and the Swiss-owned Mediterranean Shipping Company, which shuffled ships worldwide to meet seasonal demand. In the 2010s container ships no longer sailed from New Zealand to Europe direct – they fed into hobbing ports in Australia or South-East Asia.

Recent developments, 1980s onwards

Cruise ships

Although liner voyages became a thing of the past, the same could not be said of the seasonal cruise ship market, which had its local origins in the Union Company’s 19th-century Fiordland and South Pacific excursions. Cruise ships began to take off in the 1980s, fuelled in part by the popularity of the television sitcom The love boat.

In the early 21st century, every summer New Zealand ports saw a variety of ships, hosting brief calls by round-the-world cruisers and serial visits by ships dedicated to the Australasian circuit. They were also visited by small specialist expedition ships, usually chasing wildlife opportunities at smaller ports and anchorages.

Cruise ships were now the biggest vessels visiting the country, straining resources in some places at peak times. Several ports hosted the massive new 348-metre-long Ovation of the Seas in the summer of 2016/17. The 167,800-ton ship carried more than 6,500 passengers and crew.

The 2019/20 cruise ship season ended abruptly in mid-March 2020 because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The shrinking merchant marine

Few New Zealanders now worked at sea, and local shipowners had almost vanished. In 1989 the government privatised its unprofitable Shipping Corporation of New Zealand (set up in 1974). In 1994 it opened the coast to international competition. Official policy was that New Zealand was a ship-using rather than a ship-operating nation. By 1999 South Pacific Shipping, Tasman Express Line, even the once-mighty Union Steam Ship Company, had pulled out. Between 1995 and 1999 the number of ships on the New Zealand shipping register increased slightly from 2,977 to 3,051, but their total gross registered tonnage nearly halved from 482,180 to 253,739, reflecting the reduction in large trading vessels.

One area of growth, the Cook Strait ferry services, was marked by volatility. The rail ferries shared the route with a succession of competitors, and fast catamarans vied for business. In 2020 three Interisland Line ships competed with two Strait Shipping vessels on the Wellington–Picton run.

Those New Zealanders who earned their living in shipping mostly did so ashore, as ship agents, freight forwarders, marine surveyors and the like. The Cook Strait ferries and a few coasters were still locally crewed, but most sea jobs were in harbour ferries, excursion craft and deep-sea trawlers, or in highly specialised craft such as underwater cable-layers.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Gavin McLean, 'Shipping', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Gavin McLean, i tāngia i te 12 o Hune 2006, updated 1 o Hānuere 2016